Despite the fact that it has been over 30 years since it was first released, Tron still feels somewhat ahead of its time. The plot may be forgettable nonsense, but the visual flourishes of the film still remain fresh. And despite how ripe the style is for the world of gaming, few games have managed to replicate the look. That’s not to say that Stormcloud Games’ [email protected] is trying to directly copy the 1982 film, but its spirit is certainly being invoked.
If my intro didn’t clue you in, [email protected] is best known for the unique style it possesses. While it may not share the same name, the title is a reimagining of sorts of the classic adventure game, Rogue. In that game, which released in 1980, the action on-screen was represented by ASCII characters, rather than sprites. In turn, Stormcloud Games has taken those symbols and recreated them in 3D. It sounds strange on paper, but this is one of those games that looks better in motion.
The ASCII aspect of the visuals is seen in the black and whites that dominate the screen. That’s already striking enough, but when splashes of color pop up, the visuals become something to behold. Neon hues litter the dark world of the title, but they also flesh out the mechanics of the game. Colors are used to depict what enhancements either you or your enemies are equipped with. The title takes two different visual styles, and manages to smash them together in a way that feels new. It’s not Tron, and it’s not ASCII, but rather a style of its own.
The inspiration from Rogue extends to more than just the visuals of [email protected], though. The early dungeon crawler is the first “roguelike” (hence the name), and this title follows in its footsteps. At the outset of each quest, players are dropped into a dungeon that features 26 randomly-generated levels. And as with pretty much every title in the genre, when you die, you have to start from the beginning with all of your gathered items gone.
The randomization also extends to the potions players can craft during their quest. The potions are always the same, but what color they are changes with each playthrough. The only way you’ll know what does what is if you either have one of the later skills unlocked, or you experiment and test it on a subject. It could be poison, or it could be vitality, it’s all up to chance.
With the recent popularity of the genre, you’re likely either interested or annoyed with “roguelikes” by now, and [email protected] isn’t going to change your mind. It may not be as punishingly difficult as some other titles in the genre, but there are aspects of the genre that are divisive, to say the least.
Losing all of your items and loot after several hours of playtime always sucks, no matter what. It also doesn’t help that awkward jumping segments and a shoddy camera lead to just as many deaths as combat does. The camera angles can be especially egregious because Stormcloud Games knows how to frame the action correctly 85% of the time, but then will just shift to angles that don’t let you see three feet ahead of you for no reason. It doesn’t make any sense, and in a game where death is a true finality, that’s unfair.
Gameplay in [email protected] follows the standard dungeon-crawler blueprint. After choosing from one of four classes (Warrior, Ranger, Amazon or Wizard), players are thrown into the first level with only a shield and unlit torch. Hand strikes are mapped to square, while projectiles such as spells and potions are dished out with a press of the L2 button. In order to craft weapons and potions, though, you’ll need to acquire letters and ingredients, respectively. Potion ingredients are fairly-straightforward, but letters are another reminder of where the title takes its inspiration from. All 26 letters are scattered across the dungeon, and once you have a certain combination of them, provided you have the recipe, you can craft a new weapon.
Collecting letters also plays a role in being able to enchant your weapons with unique abilities. Weapons can be modified with different attributes such as fire, electricity or my personal favorite, arcane. As with before, prior to enchanting anything, you’ll need to collect the correct set of color-coordinated letters. This sounds more tedious than it ends up being, fortunately. After the first few dungeons, which can be handled rather easily, Stormcloud Games is constantly leaving letters around for you to pick-up. A lot of aspects of the game are randomized, but I never had a run where I didn’t feel comfortable with the amount of letters supplied for crafting.
To put this out there first, I don’t think [email protected] is a bad game. With that said, I do think the game is a little too shallow. It feels like the developer was trying too hard to pay homage to Rogue, and didn’t do enough to make their title stand out in a rapidly crowding genre. The combat is simultaneously basic and sloppy. Close quarters combat often devolves into either mindless button pushing or spamming the dodge mechanic. Distance fighting doesn’t fare much better, as the lack of a proper targeting system led to frustration in aiming. You’re just as likely to shoot the giant spider in the room as you are the pottery next to him.
The lack of depth can especially be seen in the character classes. Outside of the fact that the Wizard has an energy shield rather than a physical one, the differences between the four classes are negligible, at best. The only real difference is what abilities you begin your quest with. By the time you reach the back half of the dungeons, all of the classes begin to feel the same due to the limited skill tree. Even the crafting, as neat as it is, isn’t particularly deep. Once you pick up the correct ingredients, you don’t need to do anything else, as the game will craft the item for you. And on top of that, there really aren’t that many unique weapons to craft in general.
Besides the single-player mode, [email protected] does offer co-op play for two players. The same depth problems that affect the main game are still found here, but playing with a friend does help make the experience more enjoyable. Unfortunately, the title only offers local co-op, as online play has been disappointingly left out.
Finally, for all the wanna-be Dungeon Masters out there, the title includes a dungeon editor. I’m not particularly well-versed in level creation, but the tools included seemed pretty easy to use. It will be interesting to see what the community can whip up in the weeks following the title’s release.
Ultimately, [email protected] is like a pair of socks covered in fancy wrapping paper. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the game, but, from a gameplay perspective, it does nothing to differentiate itself from the countless other dungeon crawlers out there. And with little plot pushing you forward, it’s hard to get too invested in the game outside of the unique visual hook. If you’re in the mood for something challenging, but slightly out of the ordinary, this ASCII-influenced adventure may sate your appetite. However, if you’re the sort who values deep gameplay over visual pizzazz, then this is one dungeon you can avoid.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which we were provided with.